It’s no easy feat to make a successful sequel, let alone a second or third one. Nonetheless, the John Wick franchise has consistently managed to sustain, if not surpass, the creative success of each previous film. Much of that is due to the work of cinematographer Dan Laustsen (The Shape of Water, Proud Mary, Crimson Peak), who has been with the franchise since John Wick 2. We spoke with Laustsen about how he and his fellow filmmakers approached trying to make John Wick the best sequel it could be.
Create a New Color Scheme
Since its first entry, the John Wick franchise has stood out for the action that has continued to one-up and differentiate itself with each sequel. The John Wick movies have stood out equally for the visually-minded because each entry has adopted a distinct color scheme.
Conversations among the filmmakers about color start early. Laustsen, director Chad Stahelski, and production designer Kevin Kavanaugh sit down with the screenplay and think of color. They carefully avoid previous palettes – like the blues and magentas of John Wick 2 and 3. “We have a lot of discussions about what palette looks great,” says Laustsen.
Those conversations are, in part, so thorough because once they commit to a color in pre-production, that’s the final palette they’ll use to shoot. There is no use of digital intermediate adjustment later on. Once the team has settled on a color scheme – green and amber were ultimately used as an aesthetic throughline in John Wick 4 – they then assess which sets and scenes should have what color combination. “We basically try to do a color palette screenplay,” explains Laustsen.
Raise Ambitions, Keep an Eye on What’s Doable
The challenge of a sequel is finding a way to surpass the original movie. Making a third sequel in a series exponentially increases that challenge because you must one-up all previous films. “You have to do something fantastic. You have to do something you haven’t done before,” says Laustsen. “It would be much easier to do something straightforward.”
The cinematographer and his collaborators are passionate about rising to the occasion. Still, Laustsen also says that ensuring creative ambition doesn’t interfere with the logistical needs of a project – such as remaining on budget or schedule. “At the end of the day, you have to shoot the scene. It’s not like you can say, ‘Oh, that didn’t work. Let’s come back tomorrow.’ You have to make your shooting day.’”
Ensuring that’s possible, especially on a large-scale, ambitious project like John Wick 4, certainly requires the kind of preparation Laustsen and his collaborators put into color choice. However, it also calls for a pragmatic assessment of what they can and can’t do. “The whole idea of making movies is difficult if you cannot see it,” he says. “Everything has to be in my brain from the beginning because I cannot pull it off if I cannot see it inside my head.”
Make a Film for Yourself First, then the Fans
A franchise that has made it to a fourth entry will have built enough of a fan base that a new film brings a mountain of audience expectations. Laustsen has found, grateful as he is for love for the series, he can’t think about that when shooting a John Wick film. What keeps him on track is focusing on making the best movie he can imagine – not the one fans want to imagine.
“I love when people like it, but in the beginning, you’re doing it for yourself. That’s the only way to do it. You have to trust and like what you’re doing, and then hopefully, a lot of other people like it,” Laustsen says. That thinking also helps keep him concentrated on what creative decisions to make – whether it’s during pre-production or production. The box office results, critical acclaim, and response from moviegoers leave little doubt that many people liked what he trusted himself to make.